doubtful matters in the metta sutta

The Metta sutta, the teaching on friendliness, is one of the most popular and most oft-chanted teachings in the Pali Canon. Translations of it differ somewhat and a selection of them can be found here:

There are several doubtful matters in this particular sutta, so I would like to use it as an example of how we can apply the teachings of the Buddha on not accepting things at face value, using our own wisdom and experience to divide what makes sense and what does not makes sense in the texts that we read, as well as making it the means of talking about those doubtful matters in the first place.

The story of the sutta

The following is the story that we have been handed down about the occasion of when the Metta Sutta was given:

While residing at the Jetavana Monastery, the Buddha spoke this verse, with reference to five hundred monks.
Five hundred monks from Sàvatthi, after obtaining a meditation topic from the Buddha, travelled for a distance of one hundred leagues away from Sàvatthi and came to a large forest grove, a suitable place for meditation practice. The guardian spirits of the trees dwelling in that forest thought
that if those monks were staying in the forest, it would not be proper for them to live with their families.

They descended from the trees, thinking that the monks would stop there only for one night. But the monks were still there at the end of a fortnight; then it occurred to them that the monks might be staying there till the end of the vassa. In that case, they and their families would have to be living on the
ground for a long time.

So, they decided to frighten away the monks, by making ghostly sounds and frightful apparitions.They showed up with bodies without heads, and with heads without bodies. The monks were very upset and left the place and returned to the Buddha, to whom they related everything.

On hearing their account, the Buddha told them that this had happened because previously they went without any protection and that they should go back there armed with suitable protection. So saying, the Buddha taught them the protective discourse Metta Sutta at length.

The monks were instructed to recite the sutta from the time they came to the outskirts of the forest grove and to enter the monastery reciting it. The monks returned to the forest grove and did as they were told.

The guardian spirits of the trees, receiving friendliness and compassion from the monks reciprocated by welcoming them and not harming them. There were no more ghostly sounds and frightening sights. Thus left in peace, the monks meditated on the body and came to realize its fragile and impermanent nature.

Protective Chants

It is surprising to see that in the story of when the sutta was originally given, instead of it being a teaching about how one should correct one’s thoughts and actions, it being used is being used as a ‘protective discourse’ – that is to say, chanting these words protects one from evil and as long as one chants these words, harm will not come to you. This is also precisely how it is used by the vast majority of those who chant it today, and if this story is true, those who do so can claim to be perfectly in line with the original context of how and why the sutta was originally taught.

It is quite easy to see the several contradictions between this and the teachings of the Buddha, if we think about it even briefly. To begin with, a killer, thief, liar, may also just as easily chant these words as one who does not hurt or harm anyone, when he enters the forest. Can he expect equally no harm to come to him?

The very idea of a protective chant – which is equal to a blessing, or a redemptive prayer, or indeed going to wash away one’s sins in the Ganges – is contrary to the basic belief that actions have results, and that we are the heirs to our actions. Any chanting for protection, charm or blessing is a ritual that implies good and bad actions can be washed away and will not have their results. It is therefore a “wrong view” according to the Buddha’s teaching, on a very basic level. If one can stay secure and free from danger by virtue of chanting some magic words, then why would the Buddha have gone to so much trouble to teach about right speech, right thought and right action, about the purification of the mind? There should be no need for this if we can all be kept safe by repeating a mantra.

Protective chants, mantras and blessings are considered today a very important part of the practice of Buddhism, even among serious Theravada monks and practitioners, and they have given rise to an enormous number of rites and rituals, which can all claim a certain authority from stories such as this one. The harm of even one such doubtful matter, and the value of questioning doubtful matters, cannot be over-emphasised, for wrong view leads to wrong practice for so many people.

We will talk more on this subject in future articles, but for the moment we will just say that in reality, if you wish no harm to come to you, all you can do is to refuse to do any harm to any living being, and work for your own liberation. That is all that needed to be said to those monks who felt fear in the forest.


A second major problem in the story is the issue of fear, and how it is to be dealt with. Fear is not to be removed by getting rid of one object of fear by doing so we are not free of fear, nor are we free of danger.

How many foods can we eat, and how many tongues do we have? How many objects of fear exist  – and how many ‘fear’ do we have?

Luang Po

Fear is one, as the tongue is one, and it is born from attachment to the life and to one’s body and mind, not being prepared to face death. If we have no attachment to our body and mind and we are ready to die, is it possible to be filled with fear by a few ghostly noises? The practice of a monk is exactly the practice to let go of attachment, therefore a monk who is practicing rightly should know how to let go of fear, regardless of whatever object causes it to arise in him.

There is another teaching called ‘Fear and Terror’ where the Buddha relates how, before he had achieved full awakening and still was practicing as an unenlightened Bodhisatta, fear and terror would come to him.

What if I, in whatever position I’m in when fear & terror comes to me, were to remove that fear & terror in that exact same position?’ So when fear & terror came to me while I was walking back & forth, I would not stand or sit or lie down. I would keep walking back & forth until I had removed that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was standing, I would not walk or sit or lie down. I would keep standing until I had removed that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was sitting, I would not lie down or stand up or walk. I would keep sitting until I had removed that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was lying down, I would not sit up or stand or walk. I would keep lying down until I had removed that fear & terror. (MN 4)

This was how the Bodhisatta was practicing, before he had become the Buddha, without having access to the Buddha’s teaching ready made for him. The monks in the story, instead of following his example and removing their fear and terror right then and there, become overwhelmed by fear and run away, acting out of fear and terror, and the Buddha, instead of reprimanding them for their failure to practice his teaching correctly, says, like an overprotective mother to her children: ‘Here dears, say these magic words and it will make the scary monsters go away’.

Does it make sense? If it is true, the Buddha would be going against his own practice and his own teaching. We therefore put it aside and suppose that this sutta was originally to be seen as simply a teaching about friendliness on its own terms only.

The Sutta’s teaching

Now then, taken purely on its own terms and not as a protective chant, does it fit with the Buddha’s teaching; is it perfectly in line with what we can see and know by ourselves through practice?

The first verse is perfectly correct:

What should be done by one skillful in good
So as to gain the State of Peace is this:

Let him be able, and upright and straight, (that is honest with himself and others)
Easy to speak to, gentle, and not proud, (not easily offended or insulted, free from self-importance)
Contented too, supported easily,
With few tasks, and living very lightly; (not making himself busy in exterior jobs and paying attention to the highest task only)
His faculties serene, prudent, and modest,
Unswayed by the emotions of the clans; (That is he should not be moved by the opinions or emotions of others, but act only according to his own wisdom, doing what he knows himself to be right regardless of what others think.)
And let him never do the slightest thing
That other wise men might hold blameable.
(“Wise men” here not to be confused with those of the “clans” from above, but those who practice the Buddha’s teaching.)

There is no fault to be found with any of the above. One skilled in doing what is good; that is also knowing what is good (something more difficult than you might think at first) should be honest and true to himself and others, not easily offended and free from self-importance, taking corrections and criticisms without being offended or upset, content with what he has and not greedy for things in particular or for more of what he likes, not making himself busy in external tasks and concentrating all his attention on the highest task only of purifying himself; his body and mind peaceful, calm and humble; acting according to wisdom rather than being swayed by the feelings of others, and never allowing himself to do any thing that is even slightly blameworthy in the eyes of those who are truly wise.

This alone, if we were not to chant it but instead try to actually follow and practice it and make ourselves the living example of it, is enough work to keep us going for quite a long time. To this verse we have no objection and encourage everyone reading this to work to understand it for themselves and put it into practice (but no need to memorize or chant it in order to do so.)

Yet no one tends to pay much attention to this first part, this would mean actually making some rather profound changes and is too difficult and lonely a path for most people to accept. All attention is focused on the next couple of verses, the “prayer”:

(And let him think:) “In safety and in peace
May beings all be of a joyful heart.
Whatever breathing beings there may be.
No matter whether they are frail or firm,
With none excepted, be they long or big
Or middle-sized, or be they short or small
Or thick, as well as those seen or unseen,
Or whether they are dwelling far or near,
Existing or yet seeking to exist.

May beings all be of a joyful heart.
Let no one work another one’s undoing
Or even slight him at all anywhere:
And never let them wish each other ill
Through provocation or resentful thought.”

Now here is the main problem in this section: look around, are beings happy? Are beings free from suffering? All around beings are killing each other, tearing each other apart, doing harm to one another. Our wish ‘May they not tear each other apart, may they be nice to one another’ has no efficacy whatsoever, even if it is the wish of an arahant or a Buddha.

However anyone might wish this, it is not so, and will never be so. While of course it is true that one who is ‘skilful in good’ should have compassion and friendliness towards all, not allowing even a speck of ill-will towards anyone to come into his mind, not wishing anyone even the slightest harm, it does not follow that he should wish or say, ‘May all beings be of a joyful heart, may all beings be happy.’

So how should we regard the instruction to think like this? Is the Buddha telling us to think in such a way, to wish for something that can never be? What is the use of such a wish, such a way to think?

 ‘One who is skilful in good’ is one who is wise. Wisdom means knowing the truth, knowing reality and acting in line with it. Wishing ‘may all beings be happy’ is not acting in with truth or reality at all. Dhamma is for the one who searches truth; it has nothing to do with imaginary things or wishes that can never be fulfilled.

The very idea of wishing for the “happiness” of all beings is problematic and unclear. What does ‘happiness’ mean? What does it mean to be joyful or at ease, or whatever words we might like to use to translate this into English? A cat is happy and joyful when she catches a mouse; if you wished for her happiness, then you also wished for the death of the mouse she caught!

Or else, if your wish for the happiness of all means that you are wishing for all beings to come out of Samsara and into Nibbana, then you have strayed outside your proper range as a practitioner of the Buddha’s teaching. It is not up to you to bring all the mosquitos and all the fish of the sea with you.

How many minds can you correct and purify? Only this one, here and now. It is an impossibility to work any change on the minds of others, and one can even be led into irritation and anger by the very attachment to the idea that others “should be” good, that they “should be kind” or that they “should be happy” – what do you want to do when they are not, despite your wish? Can you sew up their mouths and stop their thoughts? Thus, thinking about and wishing for the happiness of others is in fact a distraction and even potentially an obstruction to what is your true job as a practitioner, which is to look into your mind, the mind that you have access to here and now, and remove wrong view and impurity from it.

This wrong view and impurity that we can work to remove from our selves includes fear; it includes anger and hatred – all ill will. This work is to be done right at the moment when these arise in the mind.

If one were to try to practice good will by literally doing as this teaching says and thinking in those words whether out loud or to himself “may all beings be happy” and so on – he would not be practicing to guard and remove ill-will from his mind, for his good will depends on his good feeling while he chants or thinks this to himself, and has nothing to do with real situations. What happens when somebody insults his mother, will he be able to let go of irritation and anger towards that person? Did he actually practice this letting go by thinking the words of “may all beings be happy”? No, he only temporarily covered up that very problem instead of dealing with it.

Yet if he practices in such a way to be able to let go of the irritation right at the moment that even someone insults or speaks rudely to him – if he is able to guard his own mind is this way – then, the true practitioner is already compassionate and friendly towards all without needing to chant any words to convince himself of the fact. It is his true lack of anger even when provoked that makes this the case, this is the measure of the strength of his training. He hurts nobody and therefore he is a source of protection to everybody, rather than needing some kind of protective chant himself.

Already he is a blessing to all, for just being in his presence is a blessing; to associate with such a one and pay respect to him is a blessing –  not by virtue of some magic power he has, but by virtue of his wisdom, which he can impart to others by association, and by virtue of the respect for one who is truly worthy of respect, which can take root in those who know him. By harmlessness and non-violence alone, simply refusing to kill, hurt or harm, he grants safety and freedom from hurt to countless numbers of beings. He does not need to chant ‘may all beings be happy’ for he is by virtue of his wisdom and the work he has done, a source of well-being and happiness to all.

The last part of the sutta reads as follows. (We include it mainly for the sake of completeness, as there are no major objections to it, and to discuss it more deeply is beyond the scope of our present subject).

And just as might a mother with her life 
Protect the son that was her only child, 
So let him then for every living thing 
Maintain unlimited awareness; 
And let him too, with friendliness for all the world, 
Maintain unlimited awareness 
Above, below, and all round in between, 
Untroubled, with no enemy or foe. 

And while he stands or walks or while he sits 
Or while he lies down, free from laziness, 
Let him resolve upon this mindfulness: 
This is the highest shelter, they say. 
But when he has no involvement with views, 
Is pure, and has perfected seeing, 
And abandons greed for sensual desires, 
He surely comes no more to any womb.

The origin story of the sutta is taken from the book of stories of the Dhammapada, which we highly recommend reading. You can find a copy of it online here:

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